A Murder on Bull Creek

bee tree creek

by Anne Chesky Smith

Recently sold to the developers of Sovereign Oaks, the nearly 160 acres of Craigsfield Farm in the Riceville community had been owned by the same family—descendants of John Craig—for over 200 years.  John Craig married Hannah Davis in Augusta County, Virginia; and, in 1789, the couple purchased a large land grant from Joshua Williams for property that lay on both sides of Bull Creek, a tributary of the Swannanoa River.  John, Hannah, and their children built a residence, a distillery, and a corn mill on the land and went about daily life on the farm until March 15, 1808 when it was reported that John was ambushed and shot by a neighbor. [However, discrepancies in the account exist and it may well have been John’s brother, James, who met an untimely death by ambush. See Rob Neufeld’s account below.]

John Craig’s death was widely reported around North Carolina because of his position in the county (Craig was one of the founders of Buncombe County and its first treasurer) as well as the sensationalized events surrounding his murder. A local reporter from Asheville covered the murder for the Raleigh Minerva. He wrote that on Tuesday, March 15, 1808, as Mr. Craig worked alone at his Bull Creek mill his dogs began to bark as if they had tracked a deer. Curious, Craig walked towards the mountain laurel thicket the dogs had disappeared into on the opposite bank of Bull Creek. Before he could cover the approximately 60-foot distance to find his dogs, a man crouching behind the laurel pointed a rifle at Craig and fired.

The lead ball hit Craig just above his stomach, knocking him backwards, and pierced his body through so that the ball could be seen poking from the skin of his back. Despite his mortal would, Craig saw the man rise from the thicket and run off away from the mill. When he was found, he told those who tended to his wounds that his assassin was daughter’s fiancé, Henry West.

On April 28, 1808, Henry West was sentenced to death by Buncombe County Judge, Mr. Locke, based on purely circumstantial evidence. After the end of the trial, however, another man—Thomas Rogers—became a suspect in the death. The bullet pulled from Craig’s corpse matched the barrel size in Roger’s rifle, but not West’s.  Rogers had also been involved in a long and bitter lawsuit against Craig. Once this evidence came out, one of the original jurors felt so strongly of West’s innocence that he led a petition to the governor to pardon West.  The citizens of Buncombe County rose up in West’s support. On May 6, West’s execution day, the crowd—gathered to watch West swing—rumbled with rumors of rescue attempts. West made a final declaration of his innocence from atop the gallows, but before the trap could be thrown a rider arrived from Raleigh with the reprieve that spared his life.

After Craig’s death, his wife, Hannah, managed Craigsfield Farm, plowing and planting with the help of her neighbors and children. When the Civil War broke out, her sons and grandsons joined the Confederate forces, and one by one, Hannah received word of their deaths on the battlefield. With no male heirs, the approximately 1,000-acre Craigsfield property was left to her granddaughter, Harriet Elizabeth Rhea (daughter of Jane and Elderidge Melton). Harriet’s sister, Mary Jane Coggins, was given 1,000 acres on Bee Tree Creek. Because Harriet had no children, both Craigsfield Farm and the Bee Tree land would eventually pass to Mary Jane’s children.

The 156-acre tract that was until recently known as Craigsfield Farm was the portion that was inherited by Mary Jane’s son, Henry Allen Coggins, (who would become known as the unofficial mayor of Bee Tree and also managed Asheville’s first baseball team).  When Henry died, Craigsfield was split between his children, all of whom sold their parcels to their brother, George (who most notably would develop the West Asheville landmark, Westgate Mall), and his wife, Margo. Upon his death, he passed Craigsfield to his daughter, Craig “Copper” Coggins (named after her great great great grandparents)—the current owner. Until it was sold, about 2/3 of the land, much like 200 years ago, was still forested. The remaining 100 acres of rolling hills were cleared for pasture and cows still lazed beneath the centuries-old trees.

UPDATE: “Nearly 200 rural acres with links to Buncombe County’s founding are slated to become an unusual housing development. Developers hoping to build a subdivision with agricultural features have a contract to buy the wooded and pastoral land next to Warren Wilson College. The Riceville property was first surveyed in 1794 by county founder, John Craig, and has remained in family hands for more than 200 years. Current owner Craig “Copper” Coggins has called the decision to sell difficult for her and neighbors and declined to be interviewed.”

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20130508/BLACKMOUNTAINNEWS/305080012/Historic-land-slated-development

UPDATE:  “With [the] $4.1 million purchase, the 169 acres known as Coggins Farm ceased to exist. For the property — and for the conflict over its future — a new chapter began. For the broader issue of preserving open space and farmland, it was a familiar story that still offers lessons for the future. Now called Sovereign Oaks, the property will become a 99-lot subdivision with trails, a common area, a neighborhood garden and access to Bull Creek.”

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/07/12/coggins-farm-land-loved-land-lost-land-developed/30046619/

For more on the Craig murder, including clearing up some discrepancies in the centuries-old account see Rob Neufeld’s article at the link below:

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/opinion/columnists/rob-neufeld/2014/03/23/rob-neufeld-on-a-mans-escape-from-execution-in-1808/6807701/

Rob Neufeld on a man’s escape from execution in 1808

March 23, 2014

“The narrow escape of this innocent man,” the Raleigh Register editorialized in 1808 regarding the near-execution of Henry West, “will serve as a caution to jurors against too lightly convicting persons of murder on circumstantial evidence.”

Three weeks ago in this column, West’s name came up in connection with newly unearthed Patton family papers. One document showed that, on Dec. 8, 1807, West deeded a parcel of land in what is now Haw Creek to the business partnership of James Patton and Andrew Erwin.

That prompted a reach into an old book. Hadn’t F.A. Sondley told a story about West in his “History of Buncombe County”?

The column then went on to relate Sondley’s tale — how West had been convicted of the murder of his arch-rival, John Craig, based on a footprint that matched his misshapen foot; and how James Patton and his sister, Jane Erwin, had obtained a pardon from Governor David Stone just in the nick of time.

The truth?

The Pattons did indeed help get a pardon for West. But as documents uncovered by the murdered man’s descendants show, some of the facts in the account Sondley collected are inaccurate.

Inaccuracies in history, like false convictions in law, don’t go away easily. Therefore, I cherish opportunities to flush out truth by means of public history, epitomized by the process of newspaper publication and responses.

Rush to judgment

First of all, it wasn’t John Craig who was murdered, but James Craig, believed by genealogists to have been his brother.

We know this not only because of contemporary newspaper accounts, but also because Jean Benfield, a Craig descendant, discovered a transcript of an 1847 trial in which two brothers, called “children of the murder victim,” contest responsibility for the Bull Creek acreage of their father, James Craig.

It was on this property, in the spring of 1808, that James had followed the sound of his barking dogs, which had crossed the creek into a laurel thicket, and was shot by someone in hiding.

According to a contemporary issue of the Raleigh Minerva, found by another Craig descendant, Lucien Holt Felmet Jr., Craig survived his fatal wound for three hours.

He “retained his senses to the last moment of his life,” the account stated, and “said he saw the man, who he supposed shot him, run off from the thicket, and fully believed the man to be a certain Henry West, who lived within a small distance of the mill.”

That was enough to send West on his way through what functioned as a justice system at that time. “This crime,” Felmet, a Lillington County attorney, stresses, “was perpetrated on March 15, the trial was held on April 8 and 9, and the execution was scheduled on May 6 … What took 55 days in 1808 would consume a decade today.”

Furthermore, there was no state penitentiary — incarceration was expensive. The Quaker notion of penitence had not yet been put into practice, nor had the use of prisoners for hard labor been institutionalized.

Corporal punishment was the customary remedy, whether it was hanging for horse theft or a severed ear for perjury.

New evidence, last-minute reprieve

On May 6, 1808, West climbed the steps to the gallows — after having been escorted, according to the Sondley story, by his advocate, James Patton — and made his dying declaration.

“I had no part in the murder of Craig, either in thought, word or action,” West was reported to have declared.

Patton knew there was a reprieve on the way.

New, exculpatory evidence had been discovered. And one of the jurors who’d convicted West had generated a petition and traveled to Raleigh to delay the execution until June 3 so the case could be reconsidered.

The Raleigh Register got hold of the breaking news and, on May 5, published the following:

“Since the trial … another man is suspected to be the murderer. The deceased was evidently shot with a rifle, as appeared from the ball which was extracted from his body.

“West is stated to be a poor man who was never possessed of a rifle. The man now suspected has a rifle which carries a ball the exact size of that which shot the deceased.

“No enmity is said to have subsisted betwixt West and Craig; on the contrary, West lived in the family, and was engaged to be married to one of Mr. Craig’s daughters.

“There was a quarrel and a long impending law suit betwixt the man now suspected and the deceased.”

The reprieve came through with miraculous timing. It was followed a few weeks later by a pardon.

I am not going to name the person who’d become the new suspect, though it’s in the records of the day. As of now, I have not found any information about whether he was convicted.

Then and now

I would like to know more about Henry West. Was he, as Sondley says, “a sailor who had deserted from his ship at Charleston,” and was he a “personal enemy” of Buncombe’s first treasurer, John Craig?

Did he have a malformed foot? Why did James Craig think he saw him running from the shooting?

If this story were to have its greatest impact, we would need to see more of the human side of the tragedy.

Thanks to Anne Chesky Smith, writing for the Swannanoa Valley Museum website, we can follow up on the Craig part of the episode.

“After Craig’s death,” Chesky relates, “his wife, Hannah, managed Craigsfield Farm, plowing and planting with the help of her neighbors and children. When the Civil War broke out, her sons and grandsons joined the Confederate forces, and one by one, Hannah received word of their deaths on the battlefield.”

The family estate, called Craigsfield, passed to Hannah’s granddaughter, Harriet Elizabeth Rhea, and then to the children of Harriet’s sister, Mary Jane Coggins. The portion of it known as Craigsfield Farm eventually resided with Mary Jane’s grandson, George Coggins (builder of Westgate Mall), and upon his death, with his daughter, Craig “Copper” Coggins.

In 2013, Copper Coggins announced that she was selling the land to a developer, David Case, builder of sustainable communities, such as Civano in Arizona. Case’s Old Coggins Farm project is going through a governmental review process.

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature and manages the WNC book and heritage website The Read on WNC. Contact him at RNeufeld@charter.net or 505-1973.

CREDIT

Holt Felmet’s and Jean Benfield’s research appeared in “A Lot of Bunkum,” the publication of the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.

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